Family in Death for a Salesman photo

Family in Death of a Salesman

  1. Death of a Salesman : an extended introduction
  2. Family in Death of a Salesman
  3. Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama
  4. Death of a Salesman: the play’s structure, a memory play

In an article entitled The Family in Modern Drama, Arthur Miller insisted that all “great plays” finally grapple with one central issue: “How may a man make of the outside world a home?”.

Making the outside world a home would imply being “well-liked”: managing to turn anonymous, business relations into close family ties – that is to say being able, like Dave Singleman, “to go… into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people?” (p.63).

In Death of a Salesman, the dream of social success cannot be disentangled from the idyllic vision of society as a large, tightly-knit family.

Yet, there is every reason to believe that Dave Singleman, as his patronymic shows, is a bachelor, when the foundation of the much-vaunted American ideal remains the nuclear family: the nuclear family as an agent of socialization and as a stabilizing influence.

Precisely in Death of a Salesman spectators are given privileged access into the private sphere of a family and occasionally turned into voyeurs. It seems that far from offering a secure, reassuring nest the family also reverberates the tensions of society at large in the 1950s.

1. The Green World patriarchal clan

Willy, through his conversation with Ben (38-41) harks back to his infancy. The image of the father is mythologized by both sons – the elder Ben and the younger Willy – even if Father Loman deserted his wife and children to lead an adventurous life.

The mother is hardly ever referred to. She must nevertheless have had a hard life providing sustenance and comfort for her two sons. When Ben followed in his father’s footsteps by running off for adventure, Mother Loman still had Willy to look after.

Willy, who recalls sitting on “Mamma’s lap” (38), suffered from his father’s absence. The lack of paternal care resulted in his feeling “kind of temporary about (himself)” (40).

Mother Loman’s caring presence is trivialized: “fine specimen of a Lady, Mother” (35) and the “old girl” when reunion with the vanished father is Ben and Willy’s single purpose. Ben starts for Alaska hoping to find his father (37) and Willy elects a father figure through his total devotion to Dave Singleman, another salesman.

Willy has remained so obsessed with the myth of his Father that he entreats Ben to tell Biff and Happy about their grandfather, so they can learn “the kind of stock they spring from” (38). So, in a way, it is as if all the Loman men sprang directly from their father’s side and as if their mother had had no part to play in their birth.

An Edenic myth is implied which seems to preclude, or at least downplay woman’s role in the procreation process.

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Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama photo

Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama

  1. Death of a Salesman : an extended introduction
  2. Family in Death of a Salesman
  3. Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama
  4. Death of a Salesman: the play’s structure, a memory play

Lots of critics have debated the tragic dimension of Death of a Salesman. Two levels have often been considered: the notion of genre, by referring to Aristotle’s Poetics, and the possibility of a new approach to tragedy, that would be concerned with the response of mankind to rapid technological advance.

The generic discussion (from genre) has often borne on an opposition between social drama dealing with the little man as a victim of an oppressive, social and economic system, and tragedy in which the transcendental aspect is emphasized.

Miller himself has reflected on this issue in a seminal essay Tragedy and the Common Man (The New York Times, February 27, 1949). It is clear that Death of a Salesman raises the possibility of a modern tragedy because unlike the absurdist theatre (Ionesco and Beckett), it postulates that ‘life has meaning’.

The question of the tragedy in contradistinction to social drama will be treated along three axes.

Firstly, it can be argued that Death of a Salesman is more than a social document in that it creates a modern myth through a central symbol: salesmanship (Eugene O’Neill: The Iceman Cometh).

Secondly, we may wonder whether or not Loman is invested with a tragic dimension.

Thirdly, is Death of a Salesman a ruthless indictment of American Society, along Marxist or, at least radical (in the American acceptation) lines, or does it go much beyond its social and historical context to bring about tragic catharsis in the audience?

Social testimony versus tragic myth?

The contemporary absence of tragedy

According to Miller, the absence of tragedy in contemporary American drama (1949) can be explained by the fact that man’s motivations are increasingly accounted for in purely psychiatric and sociological terms.

Literature tends to suggest that man’s miseries are born and bred within man’s mind: this is the psychological argument or, that society must be held responsible for man’s distress because of the deterministic laws that govern it – this is the point made by sociologists.

In each case, the possibility of the tragedy is denied because tragedy stems from an individual choice to assess, then to call into question and ultimately to rebel against the order of things.

“The thrust for freedom is equality in tragedy which exalts” (Tragedy and the Common Man, p.5)

If Willy Loman is simply considered as the poor, helpless victim of capitalist big business, then he is deprived of any tragic dimension. If he is merely a cog in the gigantic capitalist wheel that eventually crushes him to death, he is denied a tragic dimension. If he’s driven to madness, he has no tragic potential either.

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Death of a Salesman: the play's structure, a memory play photo

Death of a Salesman: the play’s structure, a memory play

  1. Death of a Salesman : an extended introduction
  2. Family in Death of a Salesman
  3. Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama
  4. Death of a Salesman: the play’s structure, a memory play

If the external plot of Death of a Salesman may be divided into chronologically organised sequences: Act One (Monday evening and night); Act Two (Tuesday), and the Requiem a few days after (Willy’s burial), the same is not true of the internal plot: Willy’s stream of consciousness.

In “the inside of Willy’s head”, past and present are blurred. Memories constantly impinge on present situations and, conversely, the present is put at some distance by the flood of recollections.

The past/present dichotomy is replaced by a non-past; non-present, in which different temporal layers commingle and coalesce. This non-past/non-present is confined to Willy’s inner mind, to Willy’s subjective world.

‘A mobile concurrency of past and present’

(The expression is by Miller, from his introduction to his Collected Plays, p.26)

Miller’s aim in Death of a Salesman is to erase any gap between a remembered past – that would be evoked through words – and a present that would be performed on stage. In Death of a Salesman both past and present are given theatrical representation.

There is no clear-cut boundary between them. Thanks to the expressionistic technique of scrim and curtain, the characters may exist in both the present and the past. For example, Biff and Happy are seen as teenagers and adults successively.

There are no flashbacks in Death of a Salesman. Better than the erroneous term flashback, the phrase double exposure would be more appropriate. In Willy’s mind, past and present exist on the same level, Willy perceives himself both in the present and in the past – which is made up of various strata.

In a way, Willy is schizophrenic; overwork, worry and repressed guilt have caused his mental collapse. In this state of nervous breakdown, past and present are inextricably mingled, time is, as it were, exploded.

In Death of a Salesman, Willy is both the self-remembering I, looking back upon himself, and the remembered I itself, that is to say the salesman as he used to be. Similarly, the same actors play their present and past selves, this is the case not only for Willy’s sons but also for Bernard, who has become a successful lawyer.

The dramatic unities, notably time, have been abolished in the most radical sense, indeed the function of memory entails a multiplicity of temporal levels, a series of different locations (Boston; New York but also the Prairie – through Willy’s father), and finally a loss of any fixed identity.

In a sense, the exploded house, with its transparent walls, its scrims and curtains is an objective correlative (a concrete, practical, tangible image) for an exploding consciousness, in which spatial and temporal fragments get intertwined.

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Extended introduction to

Death of a Salesman : an extended introduction

  1. Death of a Salesman : an extended introduction
  2. Family in Death of a Salesman
  3. Death of a Salesman: Tragedy versus Social Drama
  4. Death of a Salesman: the play’s structure, a memory play

Introduction: the structure of the play

In Miller’s mind, Death of a Salesman was not an abstract concept but the concrete image of an enormous head that would be on stage, opening up the play, so that spectators would be able to see inside. It was a very ambitious idea and the original title was The Inside of His Head.

In Death of a Salesman, the spectator is plunged into the main character’s head. There is no linear onward progression – it is a play with interruption and the striking characteristic of Death of a Salesman is its uninterrupted dramatic tension. Tragic density can be found from the beginning to the end.

Miller: ‘It is not a mounting line of tense, nor a gradually come of intensifying suspense but a block, a single chord presented as such at the outset, within which all the strains and melodies would already be contained’.

Hence, everything is in place at the beginning and the music takes a great deal of importance for it is used to set the mood. It is time now to make the difference between the different kinds of plots.

The external plot represents the succession of events perceived by Willy Loman (present-objective reality). The internal plot deals with Willy’s stream of consciousness -his memories and obsessions (subjective reality). The music points to the fact we move from the character’s present to his past.

I. The external plot

Death of a Salesman is made up of two acts without any scenes. The requiem is a burial scene. The play is about the last 24 hours of Willy Loman’s life; it starts in ‘media res’, i.e. in the middle of an action that has already begun.

Act I starts on Monday night and at the end of it, all characters go to bed.

Act II is about Tuesday’s events at 10 am. The action is no longer limited to the Lomans’ house -the two sons go to the restaurant… At 6 pm, they go out with two girls. Later, they found Willy sowing seeds. There is an argument, a showdown between Biff and Willy. Then, a car is heard roaring in the night. The curtain falls.

The requiem recounts the day of the funeral, which is not precisely set in time. Let us say out of time. It does not conclude convincingly the play. It is rather open.

The play also has a subheading, which is ‘Certain Private Conversations in Two Acts and a Requiem’. We can deduce a tension between the private sphere (son/father – husband/wife) and the requiem for it is public, attended by lots of people.

Willy Loman is a private character, nonetheless with a public dimension. Both public and private, he stands for the average American.

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Arthur Miller : Death of a Salesman